Breakfast soup: rise, shine and simmer

New Orleans, La. –

I get pretty excited about going out for a Vietnamese meal. But I usually don't set an alarm for one. Still, that's just what I found myself doing before a recent visit to Pho Hoa, a casual Vietnamese noodle house in Harvey.

I'd lunched at this West Bank restaurant before and was mightily impressed with its namesake item - pho, that super-sized bowl of Vietnam's deeply traditional beef and rice noodle soup. I was curious, however, what Pho Hoa would be like at opening time, and that required an early start. As novel as pho in the morning seemed to me, however, it turns out that's just part of the tradition for those who grew up eating the stuff.
Pho is as natural a breakfast dish for many Vietnamese people as oatmeal or omelets are for others. Look at the business hours at local Vietnamese restaurants and you'll see many of them open at 8 a.m. Pho Hoa caught my attention because it opens even earlier, with the soup simmering in customers bowls by 7 a.m. That's fishing-trip early for me, and I had to see what the dining room would be like at such an hour. When I turned up, the sun was just rising over the big box retail across Manhattan Boulevard yet the large, open dining room here was bustling with a breakfast crowd slurping soup and sipping high-octane coffee drinks.
New pho joints are proliferating across the New Orleans area, and with its crisp new building Pho Hoa at first appears to be part of that crop. But the regular clientele of Vietnamese folks turning up at the traditional pho breakfast hour attests to a longer track record. Tim Vo first opened Pho Hoa at a different location in Harvey some 25 years ago, not long after moving here from Vietnam by way of California. It was among the first pho specialists in the area then, and it remains a purist.
Like gumbo, pho is a soup that constitutes a meal on its own and plows a kitchen full of groceries into each bowl. Here's one big difference, though: I've tried to make gumbo at home - and never mind the results - but I would never attempt pho. The list of ingredients is daunting. Into the beef broth goes a long and usually proprietary list of ingredients that generally includes some combination of onions, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, sugar, lemongrass, cilantro, basil, star anise, caraway seeds, shallots and fish sauce. No single flavor seems to dominate; rather, you pick them up in a progression of tastes as you eat. The result is an ambrosial cauldron.
Tim Vo still rises before dawn each day to get the morning's pho going. Perhaps the moonlight works some magic, but in any case his broth is especially ambrosial. Just a shade darker than translucent, its surface dappled with droplets of grease, it has a richness and fullness all on its own and that only builds with the addition of sauces and fresh garnishes as the meal progresses. This is heady, energy-building, guilt-cleansing, soul-warming and smile-inducing stuff. And while a bowl of pho for breakfast may still be a bit unconventional for the Western palate, those qualities alone recommend it as a great start to the day.
Pho Hoa
1308 Manhattan Blvd., Harvey, 504-302-2094